Friday, June 29, 2007

Farewell, Altai!

Ulaangom, June 29

We're in Ulaangom, another dusty, scruffy aimag capital here in western Mongolia, after a surprisingly nice 4-day ride to get here from Olgiy. It's a much-needed day off here, and we've just come back from purchasing a small mountain of food for the upcoming 10-day ride to Moron. Here's the lowdown on the past 4 days.

Monday, June 25: Day 6 since Khovd 76 km
We roll out of Olgiy early in the morning, up a small pass and then endlessly downhill on the other side, back to the Khovd River and its ribbon of green grass and trees in the otherwise sterile rock landscape. We have a brisk tailwind and it encourages us to ride hard, out of the valley and up across a bleak gravel plain all afternoon, before finally cresting a rise and seeing the blue waters of Achit Nuur, a lovely freshwater late, in front of us. We coasted downhill and camped beside the lake after our longest day yet on dirt roads. No fishing or swimming, as the water was fairly revolting on closer inspection, but a nice sunset and an interesting well built entirely of old tires to provide (slightly) cleaner water than the lake.

Tuesday, June 26: Day 7 47 km
A tough day at the office. We set off brightly, circling the lake counterclockwise, but a ripping headwind curtails progress and affects our mindset, and we struggle all afternoon through a bleak lunar landscape, particularly after realizing that we are going the wrong way. We try to cut across country to find our desired road, but the soft sand defeats us. We climb a hill and seem to spy out a lateral track, but it proves to be an optical illusion. We camp, waterless, cold and discouraged, 10 km south of the village of Khotgor which, appropriately, means "depression" in Mongolian. It's been a long, dispiriting day. Luckily, leafing through the Lonely Planet that evening, a throwaway phrase by the author points out that a route, unmarked on any of our 4 maps, exists through Khotgor to Uureg Nuur and is actually a shortcut. We go to bed encouraged.

Wednesday, June 27: Day 8 53 km
A total contrast to the previous day. We zip uphill to the coal mining village of Khotgor, buy cookies and drinks, and then continue up a lovely green valley towards the Bairam Davaa (davaa means pass in Mongolian). We struggle up the steepest bits and have to push our bikes, accompanied by an excited mob of local children. We reach the top, at 2500 m elevation, around lunchtime and have the best lunch of the trip, sprawled on a soft carpet of grass and wildflowers, suspended between heaven and earth, staring down at the waters of Uureg Nuur. Some local nomads stop by to see what we're up to; they wear wonderful silk robes, and cut fine figures on horseback. After lunch, we ride downhill, at first through a rockfield that puts great strain on our luggage racks and our steering abilities. The scenery is wonderful, with patches of forest and huge flocks grazing the steep hillsides. Eventually it flattens out and the road improves, and we hurtle down to the shores of Uureg Nuur via a series of ancient gravesites. The lake is so inviting that we go swimming and fishing and sit out late playing guitar while watching the sun set over the Russian Altai mountains, pleased with a great day.

Thursday, June 28: Day 9 87 km
If yesterday was a great day of riding, today was sublime. We climb hard early in the morning, sweating our way up a 1900-metre pass before undulating until noon across a beautiful green grassy plateau on dirt tracks which are in such good shape that we cruise along at 14 km/h. At noon we come out at a lookout over a vast, open valley, yet another of the grand, sweeping vistas of infinite open space that are so characteristic of Central Asia. A passing jeep stops to offer us a nibble of fresh cheese, and our benefactor proceeds to set his hat on fire with a carelessly disposed cigarette. We hurtle down into the valley at 40 km/h (on dirt!?!) and climb up the other side to another lookout point which serves as a picnic spot. From that point on, it's all downhill: 1000 m of vertical descent, at first along a properly made dirt road through a narrow gorge, and then across an inclined plain. Suddenly, improbably, a mirage appears: an asphalt highway!!! We can't believe it, but we gratefully roll onto it and speed the last 40 km into Ulaangom at 20 km/h. It seems almost unreally easy to ride on pavement. Ulaangom looks nicer than Olgiy: greener and better turned out, but it turns out to be all a facade: restaurants have no food, shops have a poor selection of edible goodies, and our hotel showers nearly give us hypothermia. Nevertheless, we opt for a day off here, preparing for a long 10-day stretch, heading 680 km east towards the wonderfully named town of Moron.

From here we bid farewell to the Altai Mountains, through which we have been cycling, walking and horse-riding for the past two and a half weeks. I have loved the Altai, even though they are much more barren and open than I had anticipated. We will ride from here across the Uvs Nuur depression until we meet the mountains of central Mongolia; much of the first 5 days will be across waterless deserts, so we will be carrying a great deal of water. I will be happy to be back to a land of rivers and forests!

Peace and Tailwinds


Sunday, June 24, 2007

An Idyllic Altai Interlude

It's Sunday, June 24th, and we're back in the concrete, containers, dust and shattered glass that is Olgiy. We have just spent 8 days in the heart of the Altai Mountains, the rugged 4000-metre range that forms Mongolia's western borders with China and Russia. It may well be that this will prove to be the highlight of the entire trip, both in terms of scenery and for pure enjoyment. We had fabulous weather, breathtaking views and enjoyed some fine hospitality from the friendly Kazakh nomads of the area.

We drove out to the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park a week ago, a 6-hour bumpy endurance test in a Russian 4WD van. As we headed southwest, the dry mountains around Olgiy grew slowly greener, and we emerged onto a saddle near the end of our drive that gave a heart-stopping vista out over a wide valley of glacial lakes under a series of snow-capped serrated peaks. It was infinitely more grand and spectacular than anything we had seen from the roads, reinforcing the lessons we learned on our first big Asian bike trip through Pakistan, China and Tibet in 1998 that to really appreciate a mountainous landscape, you have to leave your bikes behind and take to your heels.

Or your hooves, in this case. We arrived at a little tourist ger beside Khoton Nuur, put up our tents and apprehensively met the horses who would be carrying us for the next four days. Having never ridden a horse for more than an hour, I was particularly nervous about whether or not I would get along with my mount.

The next morning we set off in a party of five horses and four riders: us three and our Kazakh guide Alinbai, an off-duty soldier who has been stationed in the Altai, guarding the Chinese frontier, for 26 years. The last horse carried our luggage, while we sat back, trying to get used to the rhythm of a horse's gait. We moved relatively slowly, rarely breaking out of a walk, which was just as well as trotting proved very bruising for our posterior regions. My horse, affectionately nicknamed Bony-Arse, did not much like the idea of carrying the heaviest member of the party and made his unhappiness apparent by lagging behind the others, ignoring all kicks, shouts of "shoo" or slaps of the halter across the neck. Finally our guide lent me his whip and with generous application to his posterior I was able to get him almost to keep up. Serge's horse had a similar problem with keeping up and on the right path, and he and I were always several minutes behind Audie and our guide.

We moved all day along the lakeshore, through stands of larch that had been drastically thinned by the local nomads, apparently not convinced that national parks were there to conserve nature. Looking out across the lake, or north towards the end of the lake, we saw snowy peaks in all directions, while underfoot our horses walked through meadows full of buttercups, dandelions, asters, forget-me-nots and any number of flowers we could not identify. It was an idyllic day, and we camped beside a rushing river, worn out by doing nothing all day except trying to control our horses and absorbing the views.

The next three days followed the first in form: up lazily, a leisurely breakfast and in the saddle around nine. Our guide took pity on Serge and me and replaced our horses with more tractable beasts from the army post near our camping spot, and for me this improved my experience immeasurably. My new horse, Simon Le Bon (very similar hairdo to the Duran Duran frontman) responded to commands and kept up with alacrity. Audie's horse, Stumblebum, seemed to have problems seeing the ground, constantly dropping his nose to inspect the terrain from a distance of three inches. Serge's new horse, known variously as Spot or Donkey From Hell, was the most energetic of our horses, but didn't really like heading in the same direction as everyone else, and Serge continued to have a testy relationship with his horse. Our guide, having spent his entire life riding, was probably mystified as to how three grown adults could all be so inept at such a simple concept as keeping a horse going in the right direction.

Having a guide made a big difference for our social interactions. For the next three days, we never had lunch alone; instead we followed our guide to nearby gers and enjoyed the unstinting hospitality of the Kazakh nomads who lived in them. We crowded into the spacious interior, seating ourselves on the floor around the mountains of food that appeared: fried bread and a bewildering array of fresh dairy products, including butter, cheese, dried curds, drier-than-dry curds, yoghurt, sour cream and something that we could nevery identify but which tasted rather like rancid butter. Fresh butter is one of the great pleasures of this world, and we would arise from lunch happy and sated, able to face with greater equanimity the certainty of instant noodles for supper. In exchange for the food, we always ended up photographing the family; I'll send prints to them once I get back to Yangon in August.

Our route led us uphill from the big lakes into a high, wild moor of bogs and meadows and waterfalls and ever more wildflowers. The views became more magnificent as we rose higher, reaching 2500 metres above sea level, and we spent much of our time looking around us in silent appreciation of the extreme beauty around us. We camped near some dubious hot springs, and returned downvalley on the third day via a different route. On our last day in the saddle, we rode down the opposite shore of the lake, past a couple of swimming beaches that seemed straight out of the Canadian Shield, particularly in terms of the water temperatures! We didn't let that put us off a brief dip, and then rode through increasinlgly arid land to reach our starting point.

Our last two days were spent walking. During planning for the trip, this had sounded like a good way to be in charge of our own route and to rest our sore knees and backsides after 4 days in the saddle. In fact, it was not a rewarding walk, except for a scenic graveyard with carved balbal figures (a holdover from pre-Muslim shamanistic times) and an unforgettable sunset after the first day of walking. The second day, a 25-km beeline across a bleak and desolate desert, ranks among my least favourite days of walking ever. Serge's knee began to bother him, and Audie proved herself tougher than either of us boys by carrying Serge's backpack along with her own. We did survive, in the end, reaching a lovely river where we drank litres of cold water and Serge celebrated by catching his first fish in the Altai.

We sped back to town in 4 hours this morning, and after an afternoon of resupplying and doing laundry, we're off tomorrow for the 300-km run to Ulaangom. It looks worryingly dry on Wikimapia, so we're contemplating how we'll deal with the lack of water. It's hard to tear ourselves away from the beauty of the Altai, but we have to start making some progress back towards UB. I just hope we have better roads and fewer headwinds!

Until next time, I wish everyone a great beginning of the northern temperate summer.

Peace and Tailwinds!!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Post-Soviet Apocalyptica and Pre-Summer Hurricane Headwinds

Bayan-Olgiy, June 16

It seems like a lifetime ago that we were in UB, although it was only 5 days ago that we flew west to Khovd. I'm sitting in an Internet joint here in Olgiy on our first day off the bikes, trying to upload pictures and capture the first 5 days of cycling in a few words. The best summary might be: great scenery, shame about the roads, and who ordered those headwinds?

We loaded our bikes onto an Aero Mongolia Fokker 100 jet on Monday morning, bleary-eyed from having stayed up to watch the French Open final until midnight. We had to pay for 84 kilos of excess baggage, since our free allowance was only 10 kg per person, and they weighed our hand luggage too. On the other hand, it was only $2 a kilo excess, so we didn't end up too much out of pocket.

The flight was notable for the distinct lack of greenery visible beneath our wings. A bit worrisome for cyclists who move a limited distance every day and need to worry about water. The hills were pretty barren and brown for a lot of the flight, with a few ribbons of green lining the river valleys which showed up now and then.

At Khovd airport, we waited through the silliest baggage retrieval system ever devised and then assembled our bikes, packed our bags and rode blearily into town, stopping to admire a golden eagle near the airport. The Kazakhs who live in westernmost Mongolia use these immense birds for hunting, sort of like falconry but with birds several times larger. The eagle looked extremely large and menacing, and I personally would be petrified to see it swooping out of the sky on me. They are used for hunting fox and rabbits, but can apparently even kill wolves.

Khovd was a small, dumpy affair of a town, seemingly bereft of shops stocking food for hungry cyclists to stuff into their panniers. We searched high and low for Nutella, peanut butter and cheese, but to no avail. After a lunch which featured, for Serge and I, the largest schnitzels ever made, we pedalled off uphill out of Khovd, into a stony, bleak desert. We made only 26 km that afternoon, battered by fierce headwinds and miserable washboarded gravel roads and our own lack of energy. In the late afternoon light, we finally dropped into a small basin featuring a small lake and rode in through herds of sheep and goats of Biblical proportions. The views were wonderful, with the herds kicking up golden clouds of dust and the sun lighting the desert aflame. Sadly, the lake was 50% sheep urine and bred millions of mosquitoes, but we camped well away from the shore and used water we had brought with us to cook.

The next day, our first full day on the bikes, was tough. The headwinds continued apace, and we rode through an uninspiring landscape of lifeless rocky desert, enlivened only by distant views of snowcapped 4000-metre Altai peaks. It was only in the late afternoon that we climbed into greenery, pleasant riverside meadows near an even more welcome sight, a guanz or truck stop restaurant where we warmed up on stew and milk tea. Given that we had been warned by everyone who has ever been here that Mongolian food is uniformly awful, we were pleased by the filling noodle and dumpling stew that was cooked up by two teenaged girls, the eldest of 10 children in the family. We camped a few kilometres upstream, ignoring pleas that we should stay there to be safe from the packs of wolves said to infest the valley. In a long, hard day, we had covered barely 40 km.

The following day was perhaps the nadir of our cycling, as the winds got even fiercer, the roads even more rocky and unrideable and the climbs harder. We struggled uphill all morning, stopping to chat for an hour with a personable Irish motorcyclist, Ken Taylor, on his way from Australia to Dublin. Between that and our walking pace on the bikes, we covered barely 15 km by early afternoon, reaching the summit of a 2500-metre pass where the scenery took a dramatic turn for the better. Gone were the desolate deserts of Khovd aimag (province), replaced by high-altitude grasslands dotted with Kazakh gers (circular felt tents) and the inevitable flocks of sheep and horses and yaks. We bumped downhill through a headwind which slowed us to a crawl, and set up camp beside a beautiful lake full of great birdlife: a yellow-beaked swan we had never seen before, bar-headed geese, cormorants, Brahminy ducks, gulls and a host of smaller fowl. Serge made a few casts into the lake, but we had no fish for dinner. We had done only 37 km in a full day of cycling, barely walking pace.

Our sleep was interrupted rudely for much of the night by the swans and geese. I didn't know they were nocturnal, but they spent an hour or two flying around honking loudly around the tent; I had to resort to earplugs. The next morning, as we were breaking camp, a local boy came around to try to sell us a fish; with a bit more time the night before, we might have had a bite. The cycling finally looked up that day, as we covered 60 km, through a lovely grassland landscape with endless mountain views behind. We had fewer headwinds and learned to handle the ruts and boulders a bit more effectively, but we also had better winds. Flying downhill from a big pass, we nearly cycled straight by the town of Dolbo, and had to backtrack in search of a decent meal.

Dolbo was the single most apocalyptic wreck of a town we have so far encountered in Mongolia, the very picture of post-Soviet decay and squalour. In the midst of this, we found a guanz run by a friendly Kazakh woman who spoke excellent Russian (far better than mine); many of the Kazakhs here in Bayan-Olgiy aimag have lived and worked in nearby Russia or Kazakhstan. The town's monument had a freshly-painted hammer and sickle on it, perhaps a sign of nostalgia for the communist era. We camped that night beside lovely Dolbo Nuur, a beautiful lake whose shores reminded me strangely of the Sinai, except for the plague of mosquitoes which darkened the sky every time the (tail-) wind lessened its ferocity. We had actually managed to cover a respectable distance, 60 km, over dirt roads.

We awoke to rain on our tents and snow on the surrounding mountains, and rode out on the final leg to Olgiy yesterday under threatening skies, past a monument to the massive battle fought between White Russian and Bolshevik/Mongolian forces in 1921 on the shores of the lake. The skies converted threat to actuality soon afterwards, and we rode through cold rain interspersed with snow until a late lunch, taken in the shelter of a rock outcrop. Others had lunched there before, as evidenced by the sea of sheep, goat, yak and horse bones littering the ground, adorned with smashed vodka bottles. Our stale biscuits topped with Cenovis and pickles did little to assuage our hunger, so we were lucky that most of the rest of the ride to Olgiy was downhill; we actually managed to get up to 30 km/h on the descent into town, dodging sand patches and potholes and boulders that threatened to take us down. We rode into town at 4:30, having done another respectable day of 53 km.

Olgiy looked thriving and modern from afar, but up close it proved to be more post-Soviet apocalytica: huge open spaces that become dumping grounds for trash; apartment blocks without a right angle anywhere in them, sagging to the point of collapse; sheds, shipping containers and old railway wagons housing tiny shops; broken men shambling around the streets in ancient suit jackets. Our hotel, the Duman, has a metre of broken chairs, discarded toilets and crates of beer bottles in its courtyard, and all afternoon we could hear more junk being tossed out the windows.

Luckily Olgiy also has several decent restaurants, well-stocked grocery shelves and a helpful tour operator, Blue Wolf. We have taken today off, and tomorrow we will leave the bikes and take a jeep deep into the heart of the Altai to see the mountains up close. We will have 4 days of horse-riding, and another couple of days on foot before returning here to resume cycling. I look forward to it, as we have always found on other trips that walking is the best way to get up close and personal with the mountains. After a week of treeless wilderness, we are promised trees, hot springs and wildlife, and I will see if I can actually control a horse. I look forward to getting a better feel for the Altai, a mountain range with such a romantic name.
After that, we will have to hope for tailwinds and a better daily average if we hope to make the 2000 km back to Ulaan Baatar entirely by bicycle. If not, we may have to do the unthinkable and take a truck along a long central section in order to make it to UB in time to catch our flights. I think we'll make it, but much depends on factors beyond our control: the roads and the weather. The roads broke the bikes of a Slovenian couple who were just in town before us and left in a truck; I hope we avoid the same fate.
Anyway, I hope everyone is well, and I look forward to filling you in on our Altai excursion in a week's time.
Peace and Tailwinds

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Warmup Complete; All Systems Go

Ulaan Baatar, June 10

It's a gray, cooler day here in Ulaan Baatar, the grayness coming only partly from the rain clouds which are hovering overhead. There have been strong winds howling for the past few days, and the atmosphere is full of dust, casting a deathly pallor over everything.

Since I last wrote, we have been out of town for a 4-day warmup ride, heading 80 km east and north to the lovely Terelj National Park for some camping and riding. It was an opportunity for us to test our legs and gear before starting the main part of our trip, and all systems passed with flying colours, leaving us more confident that 7 weeks of riding and camping will go more smoothly than we had anticipated. (This may, of course, be an example of hubris; bike trips in remote areas have ways of exposing a lack of preparation quickly and brutally.)

Before we left town, we poked around a bit, and realized we were crossing paths with a couple of events and trips of greater significance than our own cycling jaunt. In the parking lot of the Bayangol Hotel, we saw one of the casualties of the 2007 Peking-Paris classic car rally who hadn't left town with the other classic cars on June 2nd. It's a rally to mark the 100th anniversary of the original cross-Asia car rally, won by Prince Scipione Borghese and written about in a classic travel book, Peking to Paris, by Luigi Barzini, a journalist who accompanied Borghese and his faithful chauffeur Ettore on this epic two-month race. We felt that we were somehow crossing paths with history.

We also ran into two Icelandic brothers who are riding their motorcycles around the world; their website is mostly in Icelandic, but there are some English translations. They're taking 90 days to circle the northern hemisphere, although their plan to ride the Road of Bones across eastern Siberia to Magadan has had to be scratched because the Magadan-Anchorage flight they were counting on has ceased operations.

We also looked in on the opening day of the Asian Senior Amateur Boxing Championships, featuring Mongolian throat singing as part of the opening ceremonies (if you have never heard throat singing, it is one of the most unearthly, haunting sounds on earth). We watched a few of the opening bouts, sitting in the stands with the Uzbek team. We tried to go back today to watch the finals, but with a few Mongolian boxers making the finals, the tickets were all sold out.
On a more elevated plane, we visited the Gandan Monastery, reconstructed since the Stalinist anti-Buddhist purges. It was redolent of butter lamps and full of all the colour and atmosphere of a good Tibetan Buddhist monastery. It's so much more vibrant and colourful and full of exuberant painted detail than the Theravada Buddhist monasteries I have become accustomed to in Burma this past year.

Our ride to the Terelj was a lot harder than it looked on the map. It was only 80 km east and then north, but the first 30 km were through a hot and heavy headwind that dessicated our bodies and sapped our will to cycle. When we turned off the main road, it became a tailwind and we flew along, through a landscape out of a Marlboro Country ad: sweeping valleys of grassland,
punctuated by granite boulder outcrops. We turned off the main road and rode along a lovely gravel track up a narrow side valley, then returned to the pavement, crossed a small pass and forded the Terelj River to a camping spot next to a tourist ger complex. Its owner turned out to be a Dutchman who has turned into a Mongolian nomadic herder, raising cattle and making Edam cheese in the middle of Mongolia.

We spent two full days in the park, walking through larch forests, admiring wildflowers and birds, riding along broad valleys and camping beside fish-filled rivers. Serge caught a trout which we fried up and had for breakfast one morning. Audie had decided before the trip that she would break with 18 years of vegetarianism to eat fish if Serge caught any, and she stuck to her word, even admitting that the fish was very tasty. We look forward to Serge continuing to be the Compleat Angler during the rest of our trip. One evening, we exchanged rides on our bikes for rides on horses with the nomads camped nearby to us. The only downer of the camping was the incessant howling of dogs in the night; the Mongols seem to sleep through it, but we found ourselves awake and annoyed every night at 2 am.
Our ride back to UB was hellacious, as the winds had strengthened to gale force, and we were barely able to make 9 km/h along level ground. It was exhausting, dispiriting cycling, and it took us six and a half hours of solid cycling to make it the 80 km back to town. I just hope that the winds we will no doubt encounter out west are mostly tailwinds, or we may never make it back to UB in time for our flights home!!
I hope that this post finds everyone well, and I will post further news and views of Mongolia in a week or two. Until then, Carpe Diem (and Carpe Piscem!!)

Monday, June 4, 2007

In Ulaan Baatar

It's Monday afternoon, a scant 48 hours after arriving in Ulaan Baatar for our long-awaited XTreme Dork bike trip, and already I feel as though I know this city. It's a far more Westernized, open, cosmopolitan city than I had anticipated, well-stocked with food and equipment and much more connected to the outside world than Burma. It feels a bit like Calgary to me, a city sprawling over the foothills in a wide-open grassland. It's not as prosperous, of course, but I have been surprised at the number of shiny new cars on the roads, and the fairly European feel of the streets.

The dead hand of Stalinist city planning has been here, and our guesthouse, the LG, is located in one of those soulless apartment blocks that disfigure cities from Budapest to Bishkek. Lots of redevelopment is going on, though, and businesses and restaurants are springing up like wildflowers in May. We had a beer yesterday afternoon, sitting in the warm sunshine at the Grand Khaan Irish Pub (I'm not making that name up), watching the sophisticated young professionals of UB strolling by, cell phones glued to their ears.

I flew in from Beijing two days ago, assembled my bike and rode slowly into the city along a well-paved road in 23-degree sunshine, taking it easy on my untested legs and battling a savage wind which I suspect will be a factor in much of the cycling to come. I found my way to the LG, via a late lunch at another open-air beer place, the Khan Brau Haus.

Yesterday I awoke in my toasty warm guesthouse early and raced out on my bike to the airport to meet up with Audie and Serge, the other two Dorks on this trip. (Sadly Saakje, the other stalwart Dork, had to make the horrible choice between accepting a job she really wanted and going on a Great Adventure with her siblings, and chose with her head, not her heart. She will be sorely missed!) Unfortunately, I hadn't anticipated how cold it gets at night here, and it was only when my hands froze to my handlebars that I realized that it was only 1 degree, and that I'd left my mittens at the guesthouse. Audie and Serge arrived on Aeroflop and caught a cab into town and we spent the afternoon scoping out Ulaan Baatar, from the Stalinist pomp of Sukhbaatar Square (very reminiscent of Tian an Men Square) to the Tibetan Buddhist peace and beauty of Gandan Monastery.

Today has been spent in sleeping in and plotting our next moves. We have until July 30th according to our plane tickets, but our visas are only for 30 days, so we have to jump through a few bureaucratic hoops to get our visas extended. Having started the hoop-jumping, we then set off to find plane tickets to the far west of the country, the Altai Mountains. Our first stop, at the government MIAT Airlines office, was discouraging: the tiny Antonov-26 plane was too small to accommodate our bicycles. Our second stop, at private Aero-Mongolia, was happier, as their Fokker turboprop is big enough to take our bikes. We're booked to fly west in one week's time, since it may take that long to get the visas processed.

In the interim, we're probably going to test out our gear, our middle-aged bodies and our bikes on a short loop out to the Terelj National Park. I'm looking forward to the great outdoors, and it will be good to warm up our legs for the upcoming 2000 km of riding that we're planning.

The basic plan is to fly to Khovd, in far western Mongolia, and then spend the next 6 weeks riding back, first heading northwest through the valleys of the Altai (the last of the great mountain ranges of Inner Asia that I haven't yet visited), perhaps stopping for some trekking and/or horse riding. Then we'll head east, following the Russian border, as far as Khovsgol lake, where more trekking and riding await. From there, we'd like to head south towards the Great White Lake of Archangai aimag (province) and then due east into the old Mongol Empire ruins of Karakorum, past the Khulstayn National Park where Przewalski's Horse has been reintroduced into the wild, and back into Ulaan Baatar in time for our flights out of here at the end of July.

We're still unsure about road conditions along the way (a sign of the lack of preparatory research I've done for the trip), so our plan may change according to time or logistical constraints, or if we hear that we're missing a particularly beautiful area.

So stay tuned for (probably) irregular updates and photo uploads from the road!

Here's a map of Mongolia; our route is roughly Hovd-Olgiy-Ulaangom-Khovsgol Nuur-due south-east to UB

Here's another, better map. From Khovsgol Nuur, we'll head towards Moron, Tsetserleg and Hadasan before hitting UB.

I hope you enjoy a little armchair travelling with the Dorks over the next two months!!